St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach. File photo.

St. Mary Medical Center is replacing the medical group that runs its emergency department—a decision physicians say is reckless in the midst of the coronavirus health crisis.

In an internal memo sent to staff on Thursday, President and CEO Carolyn Caldwell said the process to open bids for the contract had begun long before the pandemic struck. The new group, Emeryville-based Vituity Emergency Medicine, will take over July 1.

“Our ER is delivering excellent medical care to the Long Beach community, and we will continue to do so as we prepare for the July 1 transition,” she wrote. “We are confident that the resources and personnel that Vituity brings to SMMC will be invaluable as we continue to combat this global health crisis.”

Caldwell, who was hired in June 2017, has clashed with medical staff in the past after replacing other physician groups in radiology and anesthesiology. Tensions at the hospital peaked in May when medical staff issued a vote of no-confidence in Caldwell.

The timing of this particular change has posed unnecessary risks and stress on the hospital staff who are preparing to care for a flood of patients sick with COVID-19, said Dr. Mauricio Heilbron, a surgeon who was recently elected chief of staff at St. Mary.

“Can you imagine being fired and still have to show up for three months and be on the frontline of the biggest public health threat of our time when the disease is coming to your front door?” Heilbron said. “What it’s doing to the physicians who have to come to work every day, it’s borderline obscene what they’re doing to these doctors.”

Vituity can hire, if it chooses, ER physicians who work for the current physician team, Long Beach Emergency Medical Group, hospital officials said. Caldwell also noted in her memo to staff that two physicians who previously worked for St. Mary, Dr. Jeffery Tsai and Dr. Phil Piccinni, will lead the transition to Vituity.

Heilbron, meanwhile, said the medical staff has retained a lawyer amid threats and fears of retaliation. The administration has told physicians they cannot speak to media, he said.

“I’m pretty sure they’re going to come after us pretty hard,” Heilbron said.

Many of the doctors, nurses and other staff at St. Mary have worked in Long Beach for decades, he said. “This thing with coronavirus is why we became doctors and nurses,” he said. “People need our help and we want to help them.”

As CEO, Caldwell has authority over administrative positions, but not necessarily over doctors. Typically in nonprofit hospital settings such as St. Mary, physicians and administrators work together for the mutual benefit of patients—but they also need each other financially. Hospitals need doctors to admit patients into their facilities and to provide core services; doctors need to practice in a place with equipment and staff.

Certain groups of physicians that are critical to a hospital—such as radiology, anesthesiology, pathology and emergency—receive contracts to ensure they are available and on call 24 hours a day.

There are about 30 physicians in the current emergency department medical group.

St. Mary is owned by Dignity Health, which a year ago merged with Catholic Health Initiative to become CommonSpirit Health. The $29 billion health system now operates 142 hospitals in 21 states across the country.

Staff writer Tim Grobaty contributed to this report.

Melissa Evans is the Chief Executive Officer of the Long Beach Post and Long Beach Business Journal. Reach her at [email protected], @melissaevansLBP or 562-512-6354.